Opening shots making qualifiers quake

Andy Farrell links up with some nervous starters on the first tee
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The Independent Online
It is the longest sentence that honourary starter Ivor Robson gets to speak all week. "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Royal Lytham and St Annes for the 125th Open Championship." After the flowery opening, the script allows for less freedom of expression. "This is Game No 1. On the tee, Malcolm Mackenzie.''

Whatever the attractions on the St Annes seafront of Pleasure Island, which has been open late into the night this week, nothing can beat an early morning on the links on a day like yesterday. Not a breath of wind, a cloudless sky and the sun casting long shadows. An open course and virgin greens. Who could ask for more? If Mackenzie was nervous when called upon to hit the opening tee shot, at precisely 7am, he did not show it.

Although the first tee is set back in some trees where spectators have no access, there was still quite a crowd of photographers, TV people, a whole horde of R&A chappies, scorers and observers and even the odd press person. Next up was Arnaud Langenaeken, a 23-year-old Belgian rather than a Welsh town, and Ricky Willison. "I was so nervous I nearly fainted," said Willison, a former printer who led the qualifying at Fairhaven. "I had a whole routine of things I was going to do on the tee, but I thought, 'Oh my God,' and just hit the ball. It was probably the best shot I hit all day.''

Willison, 36, whose caddie is called Johnny Miller but is unrelated to the 1976 champion, has been a professional for five years after switching from the amateur ranks late in his career. Langenaeken turned pro last September, soon after winning the Swiss Amateur. He spent the winter on the emerging South American tour and has played one European tour and one Challenge tour event. He got through the regional qualifier at Sundridge Park and then progressed from the Southport & Ainsdale section. On Tuesday, he played the Lytham course for the first time, without even a yardage book to rely on.

"It is an amazing feeling to be playing in the Open," Langenaeken, one of only two Belgian touring pros, said. "I am only the fourth player from my country to play in the Open. It has happened so quickly, I don't think I realise what this means. I never thought I could get through the qualifying. I was very nervous teeing up and it took me five holes to calm down.''

A group of Ealing members, who had been sampling the delights of Blackpool only a few short hours previously, were following Willison, but Langenaeken's only support came from Christian Ditlefsen, the pro at Royal Waterloo. A predecessor, George Will, a former Ryder Cup player, was the man who encouraged the young player's golf.

"It was George who first said that I could be quite good at this game. I have always played golf. Now I give a few lessons and my parents help, but I have no sponsor and no money." His caddie is a 14-year-old friend from the same club, Tanguy Legein, a 10-handicapper. "We make a good team. He knows my game and it is nice to be two Belgians against everyone else.''

At the far end of the course the gallery started to thin out as the early morning risers hung back to pick up Nick Faldo. Mackenzie holed from 30 feet at the sixth and had three birdies in four holes from the ninth. At three under, he briefly had sole possession of the lead. With a big putt at the 12th, Langenaeken got to two under but Lytham's feared finish struck again. He bogeyed the 15th, 16th and 17th to match Willison's 72.

"I was looking to get more under par. My objective was too high. It's a very tough finish." The rookie's mistake was duplicated by the 16-year tour player. At the 15th, Mackenzie drove into a bunker, which cost a bogey. He did the same at the last and with three putts, the second horseshoeing out, took six. "That's going to spoil my lunch," he said. "It was a very disappointing finish. I played too good for a 71." Of the two, the Belgian's English was the better.